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Wednesday, Mar 12, 2008


Ah, abortion: the solid center to any motion picture entertainment, right? Why so many of today’s movies have shied away from this normal, non-hot-button issue is simply a mystery. How could famed producers and artistically minded directors not see the inherent visual appeal of seedy, back alley clinics, wire coat hangers, and post-procedure hemorrhaging? You’d think by the way they avoided it, there was some manner of controversy surrounding this simple, salient life option preferred by so many modern women. Even the exploitation element felt sheepish about broaching the topic - mostly.


When corn-fed gal Patty Smith arrives in LA from Kansas, she wants to experience all that the West Coast has to offer. But getting gang-raped by a bunch of swarthy toughs was not high on her “to do” list. A couple of bouts of morning sickness later, and Patty has a permanent souvenir of the City of Angels. Hoping for help in terminating this unwanted “with child,” Patty seeks her doctor’s advice. He preaches to her about legalities. Seeking a second opinion, she visits another physician. He sermonizes about ethics…and then demands $600 to “help.” Desperate for money, Patty heads over to her church looking for a loan. The local parish priest condemns her - and her unborn fetus - to an eternity of damnation. Besides, the diocese is short on cash (go figure).


At her wit’s - and first trimester’s - end, Patty seeks the assistance of a sleazy bar owner with “connections.” He spares her a lecture, but does suggest she simply “get it over with” and just turn whore. Finally finding a financially acceptable option, Patty takes $200 to a “floating” clinic and prepares for a safe, sanitary procedure. What she gets instead is another homily to legislative change and a rather deadly infection. It may be hard for the folks back home to understand, but such knitting needle options are simply part of The Shame of Patty Smith.



Over in Dentonville, Florida, folks are as overheated as a cat on a hot tin roof, and view their small town existence as one huge crass menagerie. Trading on her family name - and her physician father’s swollen back account - little Joan Denton loves to cruise the seedy side of the city and hornswoggle the local rough trade. Eddie Mercer is the lucky load who lands Joanie’s physical love bug, and it’s not long before seed has taken womb root. The determined debutante immediately puts the kibosh on further fetlock fun, and this devastates ol’ Ed. He wants her to have the baby. But Joan is too busy preparing for country club parties, going on shopping sprees, and looking for available abortionists in Tampa (which is apparently famous for said surgical saloons).


A confrontation leads to a misunderstanding and before you know it, Edward is in jail on trumped-up charges, Dr. Denton is arranging for the fertility flushing, and a snotty lawyer from Miami is sticking his bar credentials in everyone’s dirty laundry business. When it appears that her trip to one of Ybor City’s finest birth termination facilities is threatened, Joan goes jittery and grabs a gun. Orphans are threatened. Swamps are polluted. And a planned retirement community is turned into a pre-Poltergeist burial mound as death comes from the flash of a muzzle accompanied by the screaming sentiment, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!”



All joking aside, it’s clear that one of the reasons abortion has stayed a minor motion picture plotpoint is that The Shame of Patty Smith covered the subject so thoroughly and with enough debate-oriented detail that no other Tinseltown NOW testament could compete with its completeness. And inclusive is definitely one way of describing this legal and ethical diatribe.


Made 11 years before Roe v. Wade turned promiscuity into a viable vice option (at least in the Puritan’s mind), this cinematic amicus brief to the cause of choice gives every side - medical, religious, law enforcement, and backroom butcher - the chance to have his or her say. A lot of say. Too much say. While the arguments are cogent and the language intelligent, these discomfited conversational sidesteps turn the movie into something of a mad musical of soapbox stumping. Like one of those old MGM Technicolor classics, you can literally watch The Shame of Patty Smith‘s narrative and say to yourself, “I feel a speech coming on.”


Far too contemporary for its early ‘60s surroundings, this uncomfortable confrontation between life and privacy tries to address this most non-winnable of arguments in a realistic manner. Too bad it sacrifices salaciousness, drama and entertainment to do so. One has to wonder what the raincoat crowd made of this dull, detail-oriented offering. Never before has getting knocked up been so foul…or so thoroughly footnoted. The Shame of Patty Smith has good intentions, antithetical to a grindhouse good time.



If you ever wondered what an exploitation movie about unwanted teen pregnancy would look like had it been penned by Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote, then settle back on your porch swing, pour yourself a frosty mint julep and whittle away an hour (actually, 73 minutes) with the powerful Denton family and their promiscuous daughter Joan. So steamy it instantly irons out the wrinkles in your drapes the minute it starts to unscroll onscreen, and so full of Southern-fried melodrama that Colonel Sanders once thought of including it with a bucket of his chicken, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” (changed from the original Touch of Flesh) is more Tobacco Road than classroom scare tactic.


Between the backstabbing family lawyer, the local police chief who proudly flaunts his lack of parentage, and a slinky slut who’s new to town but already at home with the horny swing of things, this peculating potboiler is as bodice-bulging as they get. Add in Joan’s sexual slumming, an elderly matron with the “hots” for Dr. Denton, and some gratuitous orphans, and this sleazy saga goes from bad to perverse.


Director R. John Hugh has a unique cinematic style. Placing his camera just a little too high in the frame, he forces everyone to talk down toward the floor, so we get very little actual eye contact. Everyone navel-gazes as they deliver their overly melodramatic lines filled with family secrets and prosecutorial proverbs. Barely touching on the divisive surgery controversy, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” intends to show how an unwanted oven bun can lead to all manner of overacting. It succeeds in superbly seedy fashion. Not even old Ed can damage this randy rhetoric reading.


As unique as they are oblique, both The Shame of Patty Smith and “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” represent motion picture moralizing at its most truncated and tawdry. They also stand as wonderful examples of abortion’s limited cinematic stance. Pro or con, these are a couple of crazy lessons in Constitutional constructions.


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Wednesday, Mar 12, 2008

Lost in the Spitzer hullabaloo was the Fed’s announcement that it would lend $236 billion to banks by swapping Treasurys for a variety of dubious mortgage-backed securities, from Fannie and Freddie and ones cooked up by private investment banks, that no one else wants to buy. (There is a distinct absence of fools in the marketplace, apparently.) This move had the immediate effect of sending the stock market soaring, but it also may have made the once-unthinkable notion that the U.S. government will default on some of its loans a bit more thinkable.


Still, you may be thinking, So what? A governor was caught with hookers, for god’s sake. Why should I care about this?


Maybe because it means the government is throwing taxpayer money at bad bankers.


CEPR economist Dean Baker offers this explanation:


Suppose that it was suddenly discovered that much of the wealth held by the country’s leading financial institutions was in fact counterfeit. Instead of having hundreds of billions of dollars of real currency in their vaults, institutions like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Bears Stearns actually had hundreds of billions of dollars of counterfeit currency. ...
In response to this situation the Fed today announced that it would lend $200 billion to banks and other financial firms, accepting mortgage backed securities as collateral. This is effectively the same as saying that the Fed is going to lend money to banks and accept the counterfeit currency as collateral, treating it just as though it were real money.
The intended effect of this policy is to convince other investors that the counterfeit currency is in fact real currency, or at the very least that there is a really huge sucker out there (the Fed) which is prepared to treat the counterfeit currency as real currency.
So how does this story play out? Well, insofar as the Fed is successful, the counterfeit currency retains its value for a while longer. This allows Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bears Stearns and the rest of the big boys more time to dump their counterfeit currency on suckers who haven’t figured out how the game is played.
It is possible that they won’t be able to find enough suckers, in which case these banks will end up defaulting on their loans and the Fed (i.e. the government ) has lost tens or hundreds of billions dollars paying good money for counterfeit currency. Alternatively, perhaps the big boys are successful and can offload enough of their counterfeit money to restore themselves to solvency before the music stops. Then the Fed is repaid, but the counterfeit money now sits in the hands of other, less informed, or less inside, investors.


In a separate post, he elaborates the consequences of this:


As I’ve written way too many times, the Fed’s actions are keeping banks from having to write down large losses and quite likely go into bankruptcy. The result is that the bank executives, whose inept management pushed them into bankruptcy, get to keep their jobs and their salaries, which run into the tens of millions a year. Stockholders will also have more time to unload their stock before the day of reckoning, and the banks themselves may be able to unload some of their junk if they find enough suckers. With luck, they may even be able to survive the collapse of the housing bubble.
Does this bail out the rest of us? Why should any of us who are not top management at Citigroup, or major shareholders, care if it goes into receivership like Northern Rock did in England? The bank’s operations will still continue. Those who have deposits there will still be able to get their money. The only difference is that there will be new management, the stockholders will have lost their money, and the bank would more quickly come clean on its bad debts.
Does the bailout do anything for the tens of millions of homeowners who have seen their life savings disappear because house prices collapsed—in spite of the fact that all the experts said house prices never fall? How about the families who are now tapping their retirement accounts in a desperate effort to prevent foreclosure, is the Fed bailing them out?


I’m guessing the answer to that is no.


Instead, the Fed seems to be hoping that the inflation that will ensue from its various policy actions will allow the housing market to clear without nominal prices having to drop, eradicating the problem of home prices being sticky (i.e., homeowners refusing to accept the reality that their houses are worth less than they once were). Writes Martin Wolf in today’s FT:


There are two ways of adjusting the prices of housing to incomes: allow nominal prices to fall or raise nominal incomes. The former means mass bankruptcy and a huge fiscal bail out; the latter imposes the inflation tax. In extreme circumstances inflation must be attractive. Even if it is not the Fed’s choice, it is what a reasonable outsider might fear, with obvious consequences for all asset prices.



Thus everything else in our lives will become more expensive, whether we have homes whose value we are worried about or not. The “inflation tax” he mentions—the bite out of our income, which doesn’t have this kind of inflation expectation worked into annual raises, if we are lucky enough to get them—is extremely regressive.


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Wednesday, Mar 12, 2008

Perhaps you are wondering, as I am, why Eliot Spitzer needed to pay $4,300 for a prostitute. I’m no sex-trade expert, but surely the sex couldn’t be 43 times better or the woman 43 times better looking than the average $100 hooker. My initial thought was that purchasing expensive women to have sex with is a way of making love to your own net worth, which is probably far more arousing than mere flesh could be when you have reached certain rarefied heights of social prominence. By paying far more for them than anyone would have to, one asserts a kind of profligate power of sheer wastefulness that supplants the tired pleasures of sex, which any poor slob can enjoy—perhaps this absurd expenditure compensates for the inability to consume hookers conspicuously. It’s akin to the phenomenon of wine seeming to taste better when we believe it cost more money.


But Tyler Cowen has a different theory.


It’s not so hard to explain:
  “The conditions under which transactors can use the market (repeat-purchase) mechanism of contract enforcement are examined.  Increased price is shown to be a means of assuring contractual performance.  A necessary and sufficient condition for performance is the existence of price sufficiently above salvageable production costs so that the nonperforming firm loses a discounted stream of rents on future sales which is greater than the wealth increase from nonperformance.  This will generally imply a market price greater than the perfectly competitive price and rationalize investments in firm-specific assets.  Advertising investments therefore becomes a positive indicator of likely performance.”
That’s Klein and Leffler, JPE, 1981



In other words, Spitzer had to pay an extreme amount to ensure the prostitute’s silence and trustworthiness. Sort of the same reason umpires make a lot of money, to discourage them from fixing games.


I wonder if people happen upon such a strategy subconsciously, or if actual extortion is involved.


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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008


Blame it all on Godzilla. Or better yet, blame it on Toho Studios, Sandy Frank, and any other individual or entity that has a say in how Japan’s favorite oversized lizard gets manipulated and marketed around the world. When Rhino released Volume 10 in their recently halted Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD collection (don’t worry - Shout! Factory is taking up the mantle), it included the satiric show’s riff on Godzilla vs. Megalon. Famous for introducing the Ultraman-inspired Jet Jaguar, as well as a weird arms race theme (the undersea kingdom of Seatopia decides to fight nuclear testing by…sending a massive monster to destroy Tokyo?), it stands as a fan favorite.


Unfortunately, as with many movies in the MST3K catalog, issues over rebroadcast rights reared their ugly head. Devotees of the classic cowtown puppet show have long had to resign themselves to the fact that many of the series’ most memorable episodes would never see the light of a home video release. The reasons are many - post-commercialized claims, long unsettled legal disputes, family tiffs, limited use contracts - but the fact remains that both Godzilla and his success inspired turtle brother Gamera have been visibly absent from the Rhino releases. When Megalon hit, many thought the drought may finally have ended. Others believed it was too good to be true. They were right.


Indeed, aside from a few review versions sent to websites and publications for write-up, and a couple of accidental brick and mortar sales, Volume 10 of the Mystery Science Collection soon became an out of print prize. The box set was pulled, rumors surfaced and were settled, and anyone desperate to own the DVD version of the installment had to pay big bucks to collectors and/or price gougers. In response, Rhino is releasing a ‘replacement’ disc, an ‘upgrade’ if you will. Taking Gojira’s still warm seat in the digital package will now be the classic Season Four installment, The Giant Gila Monster. Starring the leg up vocalizing of Don Sullivan and directed by The Killer Shrews’ Ray Kellogg, this forced perspective reptile on the prowl picture is truly bad…meaning it makes for flawless MST fodder.



It seems that Chase Winstead and his fast driving teen buddies just can’t get enough of tearing through the dirt roads of their backwater burg. But when a pal and his pretty thing fail to show up for a rendezvous at the passion pit, the town gets worried. Seems the boy is the son of factory owner Mr. Thompson, and this rural entrepreneur loves to throw his weigh around. He especially enjoys bossing the likable Sheriff Jeff. When more people go missing, the mystery deepens. Then local lush Old Man Harris sees a giant Gila monster crossing the road. It causes a massive train accident where victims confirm the creature. It is up to Chase, his crippled sister, his French speaking girlfriend, and the aging lawman, to save the barn dance and destroy the beast once and for all.


In a clear case of Fourth Season syndrome (a theory among critics by which a television series reaches its first of possibly many creative peaks), The Giant Gila Monster stands as many MiSTie’s most memorable outings. It contains the sensational second on air cast incarnation - Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, and Frank Conniff - and finds the program banging on all of its sarcastic cylinders. From the sensational invention exchange (who doesn’t want to punch out Renaissance Fair stereotypes) to Tom Servo’s expose on how Kellogg employed the ‘bended knee as blocking device’ technique, it’s a marvelous installment. While it may not replace the mesmerizing “man in suit” dynamic of Godzilla’s Eastern promise, it satisfies in its own schlocky way.



Indeed, the movie itself is a mishmash of horror, rock and roll, melodramatic schmaltz, and standard formulaic filmmaking. Kellogg uses minimal sets (a garage, a barn, a soda shop) and lots of local Texas backdrops (the movie was filmed in the Lone Star state) to tell his tale, and via the use of miniatures and massive close-ups, he creates a well-meaning (if rather unexceptional) giant beast. Sullivan’s Chase Winstead is a juvenile delinquent in the Steve McQueen/The Blob sense. He’s a good kid, occasionally misguided in his engine revving routine. There are songs (composed and sung by the star himself), a wacky old drunk, some choice chest puffing, and a good amount of over the top orchestration. All of it tries to make The Giant Gila Monster more imposing than it is.


As for the MST material, it’s above reproach. The in-theater joking is marvelous, most of the mirth centering on giving the title character a rib-tickling running critter commentary. Though it admits to having a brain “the size of a chickpea”, the Gila definitely gives good wit. Similarly, there are numerous mentions of the actor’s everpresent knees, a complete deconstruction of Sullivan’s tune “The Lord Said Laugh”, and a choice skit where comic drunks are discussed. This is the kind of movie that easily lends itself to the MST3K treatment. It’s hokey without being completely horrible, pedestrian without plodding along. The combination of film and funny business represent the reason many think Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains the best show in the history of the medium.



Of course, what many outside the obsessive will wonder is - is this DVD worth getting? Rhino is selling them for under $8 (for those who already own Volume 10) and it will be included in every new version of Volume 10.2. The answer is a resounding YES, if only for the introductory material. Somehow, Joel, Trace, and Frank were all convinced to re-don their character costumes and recreate an opening sequence from the show. Within this older, balder, and bulkier version of MST‘s memorable players, Joel and the ‘Bots help Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank explain the “upgrade” process. It’s one of the best things the series has ever done, and a burst of badass nostalgia for anyone who truly adores the show.


But there’s more here than that. Along with a gallery of stills, the disc also houses a 12 minute interview with actor Don Sullivan. He expresses his love of the film, how MST3K helped him appreciate it even more, and how he came to Hollywood with big dreams and $3 in his pocket. He also talks about his songwriting, the meaning of “The Lord Said Laugh” and why he dropped out of show business. It’s an insightful Q&A, one of the best ones these discs have provided. As an added bonus, we get two audio-only tracks from the Sullivan catalog. They’re a hoot. It all turns a must-own DVD into one of the best format fortunes out there. So perhaps instead of blaming Godzilla and his monetary keepers, we should thank them. If for nothing else than the return of our favorite MST icons, The Giant Gila Monster makes Volume 10.2 terrific!


 


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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008

EMI was recently bought out by Terra Firma, a private equity group led by the delightfully named Guy Hands, who is not surprisingly perplexed by the encrustation of parasites (aka talent scouts, “creative types”, or A&R people) who seem to contribute nothing measurable to the bottom line. These cultural medicine men are customarily romanticized by their own ranks as having some mystical power to intuit what will sell (in other words, who has “talent”) and because it is basically a crap shoot determining what will tap the pop culture zeitgeist, past performance in the A&R world does function as a guarantee of future success. Just read this crazy article from the NYT Magazine about Rick Rubin to see how spiritual the discussion about the transcendent powers of the almighty A&R guru can become.


I tend to root against the culture connoisseurs who commercialize their own alleged creativity in this way; I prefer my creative types to be humble craftspeople who actually make interesting things, not ersatz sages with a gift for sophistry and self-promotion. But when you market yourself as someone with special access to something as mercurial and inherently unsystematic as creativity, you are setting yourself up for a well-deserved fall. Guy Hands agrees with me:


Mr Hands told the SuperReturn private equity conference in Munich: “The power and the decision has sat with the A&R man, who is someone who gets up late in the day, listens to lots of music, goes to clubs, spends his time with artists and has a knack of knowing what would sell. They were committing money with no sign-off, no nothing. What we are doing is taking the power away from the A&R guys and putting it with the suits - the guys who have to work out how to sell music. Trying to persuade 260 people to give up their power has been hard. We had labels at EMI that were spending five times as much on marketing as their gross revenues. We told them you could stick a £50 note on the cover of a CD and have the same effect, and we also wouldn’t have to pay them. Those sorts of comments don’t go down too well.”



John Gapper, in his FT column, offers a token defense of A&R practices, allowing that suits would be no better at them and would likely to bureaucratize the talent-search process and make it even worse. But A&R people need not be replaced with suits, they can be replaced with the masses themselves, who A&R people once presumed to speak for. On his blog, Gapper makes the more persuasive point that A&R people have been made moribund by the low-overhead music-discovery opportunities on the internet. He explains: “Given the straits of the industry, it seems fair enough to question whether they have the special powers that they claim, or whether they are simply rent-seekers who have inserted themselves between bands and investors and soaked up a lot of money.
This seems to me one of the most interesting issues facing the industry. You could mount a good argument that the internet and digital distribution has undermined the rationale for the bloated A&R overhead. When new artists can be discovered on MySpace, it surely brings into question whether quite so many highly paid talent-spotters are necessary.”


It doesn’t just bring it into question; it answers it with a resounding no. The easy manufacture of cultural product makes editors more necessary than ever, but the ability of the internet to aggregate the “wisdom of crowds” and perform massive feats of analysis mechanically works to pick up the slack. Hence, something like the website Pandora could be processing an influx of raw, unjudged music and spitting it out in pieces to those it determines will like it. Then that data could be aggregated to determine where record labels, if they still exist, should make big bets. And niche indie labels will fill in any gaps and allow for culture not mathematically derived from the lowest common denominator of public taste.
Bands, according to Gapper, defend the “rent-seeking” A&R gurus, but that’s because they are the ones telling the bands they have special talent—the musicians’ special gifts them confirm those of the A&R people, creating a death spiral of narcissism and self-congratulation. Lets hope the Guy Hands of the world put an end to it.


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